On January 1, Bulgaria, the poorest country in the European Union, took over the rotating presidency of the bloc for the first time, a position it will occupy until the end of June. This comes as a considerable responsibility for a member state that only joined the club ten years ago, and still remains under a Brussels-imposed Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) due to its serious corruption and organised crime problems.
For the next six months, Bulgarian officials will be responsible for organising European ministerial meetings, setting agendas, and working to bring about consensus among member states. This will prove a challenge for country with limited diplomatic and technical experience in these areas. To help Sofia carry out these duties, the Commission has “loaned” some 40 of its officials to ensure the smooth running of the presidency – a practice that is relatively common when small countries take charge, but speaks to a certain nervousness in Brussels nonetheless.
The agenda under Bulgaria’s tenure promises to be busy and delicate. The most complicated task will probably be to reach an agreement on a subject that has deeply divided Europe over the last two years: migration. Brussels wants to reach a consensus by June. But the countries of the East, Poland and Hungary in particular, continue to categorically reject any idea of ”quotas”.
Bulgaria, which shares more than 250 km of land border with Turkey and was at the forefront of the migration crisis of 2015, will have to compromise, without taking a stand – it is the role of a presidency to remain as neutral as possible in Brussels – even if Prime Minister Boyko Borissov may be closer to the positions of Hungary’s Viktor Orban than Germany’s Angela Merkel on the issue.
Bulgarian officials will also have to steward the Brexit negotiations, which are entering their second phase since that the terms of the divorce from London and the Irish border question were decided at the end of last year.
Then there’s the thorny issue of the “multiannual financial framework”, the EU budget for 2021-2027, for which the Commission is due to make proposals in May. The battle to define priorities in a post-Brexit setting where the remaining twenty-seven states will have to make do minus the British contribution, about 10 billion euros a year, will prove tough. Some member states, including France and Germany, have already stated that they want to see the future granting of EU funds conditioned on recipients upholding respect for the rule of law and EU values. A proposal aimed squarely at the “illiberal” policies of the Polish and Hungarian governments.
Adding to the scrutiny under which Bulgaria’s presidency will be viewed is the lingering perception that when Bulgaria and Romania entered the EU, they did so by the skin of their teeth and had not yet proved themselves ready to become members. While last November’s CVM report praised Bulgaria’s progress towards tackling organised crime, concluding that country’s overall profile in this area is beginning to resemble that of other EU countries, Bulgaria will continue to be closely monitored. And it is far from certain, despite the strong support of President Jean-Claude Juncker in September 2017, that Sofia has managed to convince all its European partners.
Despite formally fulfilling the criteria for access to the passport-free Schengen travel area, countries like the Netherlands have been blocking its entry citing continued concern over border control and corruption. On this matter the Commission was less complimentary in November’s CVM report than it was about Sofia’s efforts against organised crime, saying “the fight against corruption is the sector where Bulgaria has made the least progress in ten years “.
Earlier this month, Bulgarian President Roumen Radev vetoed an anti-corruption law demanded by Brussels, which he said was too weak to prove effective. According to the legislation, a single institution would replace several existing bodies, which have so far failed to provide tangible results. Radev fears that the leadership of this institution, appointed by a simple majority in Parliament, would fall under the control of the majority party, Prime Minister Borisov’s Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB).
A European Commission spokesperson said that Brussels is working closely with the Bulgarian presidency on these topics. “We have published a very concrete series of recommendations to the country at the end of 2017 and we will reassess the situation at the end of 2018, “said Mina Andreeva.